Russell Watson looks good for his 44 years. Tall, slim, dressed in smart black trousers and expensive shoes. His skin glows, he’s a bundle of energy and when I shake his hand, the positivity crackles up my arm. Not surprising really when you consider that he’s back with a new album after seeing off two brain tumours in the past three years and battling back to full health. “Ten years ago when I was just starting out I’d have moaned about all this publicity work, but now it feels like part of an exciting journey. I’m not just going through the motions anymore and I’m thrilled to have made the record of my dreams,” he beams, fixing me with one of many broad grins…
The album in question is La Voce, a tribute to Italy jam-packed with Italian arias and even has Russell singing the theme tune to The Godfather. It’s clearly a labour of love close to Watson’s heart. “I wanted to capture the essence of Italy on the record, so I went to Rome and recorded with an Italian orchestra,” he tells me, leaning forward on the two-seater grey sofa at Sony’s Kensington HQ. “I think we achieved a romanticism on the record that I wouldn’t have got elsewhere. There’s a couple of arias, some Mario Lanza tracks, a couple of film scores. There’s also Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, which started life as a classical Italian piece.”
That the album reflects one of the most-listened to tenors of modern times is undoubted; that the album was ever made in the first place is a miracle in itself. Watson was famously catapulted to fame after singing at Man Utd’s final game of their 1999 triple season and followed that up with a series of albums that placed him at the heart of UK classical vocalists. However, that was before the brain tumours planted themselves on the front of his brain, forcing his optical nerve up into his frontal lobe and killing his vision in the process.
“It wasn’t the best time in my life,” he smiles, leaning back thoughtfully, sight now partially recovered in his left eye, better in the right. Have the tumours and the long, arduous recovery process affected his voice?
“Not really, but it had a huge affect on my physicality and the psychology of singing. After the second tumour I felt hammered, I’d lost my confidence. Then I started 25 treatments of radiotherapy in 2008. Being bolted to a table and zapped with nuclear energy for six weeks does nothing for your sense of well-being. I can’t begin to describe how awful I felt. I was also taking steroids to keep the swelling down and as a result all my joints swelled up and I put on three and a half stone in two months, as well as clumps of my hair falling out. When I came out of that, the last thing on my mind was singing – I wasn’t strong enough physically or mentally. If you haven’t got the confidence to go for the top notes which people have come to see, then there’s no point doing it.”
His journey back to health after tumour number two was long and he tells me that the recovery is never quite done with. “It’s been three years now and I don’t think it will ever leave me – it doesn’t stop or go away and I’m constantly thinking about eating right, living right.” But singing is what he does and so getting back into the saddle was a natural thing to do.
“I remember the first time I went to see my voice coach – we sat round the piano and I was doing low-range scales. He looked at me and said ‘Oh my god, what’s happened to your voice Russell?’ I looked at him and said ‘What do you mean?’ He replied ‘It sounds bloody fantastic! I’ve never heard that kind of depth before.’ Those kind of comments helped me get back to where I’ve got. A huge percentage of what I do is based on me having the confidence to do it. The material that I’m doing is high-wire singing and if there’s an ounce of doubt in your mind, you’ll fall.”
But build it up he did, which takes us to the present day where he’s promoting his new album and preparing to go out on tour, his biggest ever and one he tells me he’s truly looking forward to. “I get such a buzz from singing live.” He pauses for a moment. “I know that sounds rubbish and everyone says that but I really mean it. I come alive on stage.” In three years Russell is back to fighting weight thanks to hitting the gym hard and getting back in shape, aided by the Black Eyed Peas. “I love their album The E.N.D. – it’s the ultimate workout album. I know the tracklisting by heart I’ve listened so much.”
Watson also had an unusual ally in his recovery process too – the Vatican. “I sang for Pope John Paul II a few years back which was a career defining moment. I was stood on stage in the Vatican with a 110-piece orchestra roaring behind me, 200-piece choir behind them, front row was laden with red-robed cardinals, the pope was in his own box and it was being beamed to however many people across Europe. I was thinking ‘Crikey, three years ago this was Wigan Road Working Man’s club on a Saturday night slashing down with rain’.” Having given the Pope his CD after the gig, a letter dropped through the post with a red wax seal on it from Vatican City. He grins a big Lancashire grin: “It was a letter from the Pope invoking god’s wishes on me and saying how grateful he was for the gift of my musical CD. I’m sure that blessing went a long way to looking after me over the past few years.”
The album and tour are also celebrating ten years in the business we call show – something he’s fiercely proud of. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long but then again with everything that’s happened, singing at Old Trafford in 1999 seems like a lifetime ago. In a music industry where artists are so transient, I’m quite proud I’m still here.”
Russell Watson’s La Voce is out now.